Have you ever taken a moment to look at the tag on your clothes to see where your clothes were made? Chances are, the tag will read: “Made in China” or another country outside of the USA. Although the label may seem harmless because a lot of our products are manufactured in different countries, there is so much more to the story than just a “made in ____” label. We live in a “fast fashion” world, where companies produce high volumes of low-priced clothing at the expense of the environment and workers. Companies like Forever 21 and Zara process one million garments per day. Just imagine the resources involved, both human and otherwise. In the world’s least developed countries, an estimated 40 million people sew more than 1.5 billion garments in 250,000 factories and sweatshops each year. In many cases, these workers are not provided with basic workers rights, fair wages, and ethical working conditions.
The Environmental Consequences of Fast Fashion
Cotton, one of the fashion industry’s most frequently used materials, is among the most pesticide-intensive crops on the planet. It’s estimated that one pound of cotton requires at least one-third of a pound (136 grams) of pesticides. To help you understand, it takes half a pound (227 grams) of cotton to make the average t-shirt. In addition, cotton is a water-intensive crop. To produce one pair of jeans, it takes more than 1,800 gallons of water. It’s no wonder then that the $3 trillion fashion industry is the second most polluting industry, just behind oil.
Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth leading producer of cotton, is a clear example of how cotton can negatively impact a region’s environment. In the 1950s, two rivers in Central Asia, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya were rerouted from the Aral sea to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan. Today, water levels in the Aral are less than 10 percent of what they used to be just 50 years ago. As the Aral dried up, the communities and especially the fisheries that depended on the water supply crumbled. Over time, the sea became over-salinated and encumbered with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers from the nearby fields. Dust from the arid, exposed lakebed, containing these toxins and salt saturated the air, which created a public health crisis, negatively affected the farm fields for growing crops, contaminating the soil. The Aral is increasingly transforming into a dry sea, and the loss of what used to be a large body of water has caused the region’s summers to become hotter and drier and the winters to become much colder.
Uzbekistan is not the only example of how the conventional cotton farming industry has wreaked havoc on the environment and our health. Regions such as Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, Pakistan’s Indus River, and the Rio Grande in Mexico and the U.S.
Although organic cotton is a much more sustainable alternative, this farming mechanism is rarely used – at only one percent of all the cotton worldwide being grown this way. Organically growing cotton does have its challenges, however. The crop is still water intensive and the clothing made from it may still be dyed unnaturally with chemicals and shipped to be sold globally.
It’s Also a Public Health Issue
According to the Center for Environmental Health, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Wet Seal and other popular fast-fashion chains continue to sell lead-contaminated belts, purses, and shoes above the legal amount, even though they signed a settlement agreeing to limit the use of heavy metals in their products years ago.
The New York Times asserts the Center for Environmental Health is focusing on reducing the lead content in products marketed to young women because lead accumulation in bones can be released during pregnancy, potentially hazardous to both fetus and mother.
Lead exposure has also been linked to higher rates of heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and infertility. Many scientists agree there is no “safe” level of lead exposure for anyone.
Now just imagine that the lead contamination is just an addition to the harmful insecticides, formaldehyde, pesticides, flame-retardants, and other known carcinogens that reside on the clothes we wear.
A Thread of Hope
So what’s the solution? It’s simple really: become a conscious consumer.
Educated yourself, buy local clothing where materials are sourced sustainable, buy less, thrift or use second-hand items, buy from independent designers. You can even take it a step further and educate and inspire others to follow in your footsteps. Fast fashion, unfortunately, may not come to an end tomorrow, but what can is your relationship to it.
Image source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock